ASHLAND, Ky. – A score-fest was expected when the 1954 and 2020 Tomcats tangled at Anderson gym, where the 3-point line would be in play.
Even though the 54 Tomcats didn’t play with that luxury, they had enough players who could launch from there with good success and the 2020 Tomcats simply feasted behind the stripe. A high-scoring game was expected and that may be why the stands were full early.
Just watching the teams in warmups was satisfying enough. It was like watching Barry Bonds take batting practice. Bill Gray of the 54 Tomcats got real comfortable real fast behind the arc, hitting 10 consecutive triples during one shooting session. It was quite a show to watch and even the kids in the stands were in on the countdown. When the 11th one spun out, a loud “awwww!” could be heard.
On the other end of the floor, the 20 Tomcats went through their normal routine which included a lot of attempts from 3-point land and most of them not even moving the net. They called Anderson gym the Splash Pad during the undefeated season for a reason.
Nobody had seen this many times before in Anderson gym, but the fans were on their feet cheering during warmups!
It helped too that the always prepared public address announcer Chuck Rist was spinning songs from the 1950s and every other era leading up to the 2000s in a rotating basis that only he could do. The place was absolutely bumping and his infectious music was one of the reasons why. It was part basketball, part rock concert.
Meanwhile, 2020 Tomcat coach Jason Mays was sitting on his bench taking in the pregame like it was a giant Slurpee. He couldn’t get enough of the basketball sweetness he was watching.
“Can we just send everybody home now?” he asked. “I mean, this is a show right here. Do we need to mess that up by playing?”
Mays was right. It was a show with a lot of shooting stars. Literal shooting stars. An all-night game of H-O-R-S-E would have been worth the admission. But both teams were itching to play this virtual shootout.
The 54 Tomcats are part of Ashland Tomcat lore, a team that some say overachieved in making it to the state semifinals where they lost a close one to Newport and then finished in third place during a time when consolation games were played.
George Conley was in his last season as coach of the Tomcats in 1954, but the Senator still had a fire burning in his belly and he relayed that competitive edge to his players and to anybody within ear-shot.
Conley was intently watching the 2020 Tomcats swish in shot after shot after shot in pregame. He couldn’t take his eyes off them.
“Do those guys ever miss?” he asked. “Well,” answering his own question, “they will after we knock a few of them on their as…”
He was interrupted by a manager who said he was needed at the scorer’s table, something about the starting lineup. (Good thing since this is a family publication).
Rist quickly pulled up the song “That’s All I Want From You” as Conley walked over to check on the book. He followed that up with “Mister Sandman.” The fiery coach scowled at him after that one.
“Do we have to play that infernal music?” he asked.
The crowd was worked into a frenzy as the teams headed to the respective dressing rooms with Rist switching to “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet.” They had sized up each other, received some final instructions from coaches and were ready to go for a rip snorting game.
They may have been too amped. Neither team was able to make a 3-pointer in the first quarter, although both fired them up. The 2020 Tomcats did get the offense moving though and led 20-17 when Cole Villers scored on a putback at the buzzer.
The 54 Tomcats began finding the range from downtown in the second quarter with Gray zeroing in from long range. He drilled 3 of 6 on triples in the second quarter, but rolled his ankle when he came down awkwardly on a rebound. Gray was having a dominating game, scoring 14 with eight rebounds, when he was forced to leave.
There was more firepower behind him. Jerry Henderson, Darryle Kouns and Mike Jones weren’t missing many either.
“They got that running game going and we couldn’t do much with them,” Mays said. “I had to figure out a way to slow them down.”
The 54 Tomcats led 43-41 at the half but only because the 2020 Tomcats closed the first half on an 11-2 run. And they were nailing the triples too.
Rist played “Three Coins in the Fountain” as the teams were leaving the floor.
It promised to be an exciting second half.
The teams were so evenly matched and that’s how the second half began playing it. Back and forth they went, shots flying in from everywhere. It seemed like everybody was hot.
“Some Like It Hot” fittingly blared over the loudspeakers during one timeout. Rist was on his game, too.
And his song choice was true, at least on the basketball court.
Gray returned late in the third quarter, but was mostly ineffective. His ankle was heavily taped and he tried to play but was hampered by the injury. He had five points and two rebounds in the second half and didn’t play in the fourth quarter as he sat with an ice pack on the ankle.
“Losing Gray was a tough deal for us to overcome,” Conley said. “He can get hot like he did tonight. The guy is a pure shooter. We missed that in the second half.”
Villers, meanwhile, was lighting up like a Christmas tree. He finished 7-of-9 from behind the arc to lead an explosion for the 2020 Tomcats. All five starters finished in double figures with Villers collecting 25 with 14 rebounds.
The problem wasn’t scoring, it was stopping the 54 Tomcats from scoring.
“We had a lot of trouble guarding Gray in the first half and Henderson in the second half,” Mays said. “Gray is as good a shooter as we’ll ever face and Henderson is hard to cover. He gave us fits. They are a lot like us with a lot of talented players. It’s no wonder it was such a good matchup.”
The 2020 Tomcats were leading 57-56 when Hunter Gillum scored on a drive. Ethan Sellars zipped him a no-look pass as he was moving toward the basket. He caught it in stride and laid in the bucket.
In a game that was tied a dozen times with eight lead changes, the 2020 Tomcats were trying to finish it off. Justin Bradley, who had 17 points and 12 rebounds, drilled a turnaround jumper and Colin Porter popped in a step-back 12-footer to make it 75-70 with 1:45 remaining.
Conley took a timeout, rallied his players around him, and set up some strategy to get back in the game. And it worked.
They came out to “Shake, Rattle and Roll” playing in the gym as Rist kept pushing the right buttons. The crowd was dancing in the aisles. They really were!
54 Tomcat Bill Kazee drilled his only 3-pointer to make it 75-73. Villers scored again for a 77-73 advantage, but Henderson came right back scored on a putback, then forced a turnover that allowed Kouns to get off a 15-footer at the buzzer that was all net and it was 77-77.
In the overtime period, Villers struck with his seventh 3-pointer to make it 80-77 and again the 54 Tomcats answered. When Kouns rebounded his own miss and put it back in, the game was tied again at 83 with only 15 seconds to play.
Mays called a timeout to set up strategy and set up a last-second play for Porter. But the 54 Tomcats had countered with a defense that trapped Porter before he could drive. Despite a double-team, he was somehow able to kick it out to Bradley who was open in the far corner. The 2020 Tomcats had already made 11 of 24 from behind the arc. Bradley never hesitated, not for a split second, and let it fly … swish! The 2020 Tomcats had won 86-83 with the last-second thriller.
And Rist was ready with “Celebration” already queued up.
Bill Gray only played a few minutes in the second half but he still finished with 19 points and 10 rebounds. The 54 Tomcats obviously missed his presence.
“It’s part of the game,” Conley said. “I like this little shooters on this 2020 team. They’re some tough kids, tougher than I thought. Good win for them. They represent the Tomcat tradition well.”
Henderson collected 14 points and 15 rebounds and Kouns 16 points and 11 boards.
Villers and Hudson were backed by Sellars with 12 points and Porter with 10 points and seven assists.
Ashland’s 1954 team won 28 of 34 games and reached the Sweet 16 semifinals where Newport knocked them off 73-69. The Tomcats won the consolation game against Adair County.
Ashland’s 2020 team went 33-0 – the perfect season – but didn’t get to play in the Sweet 16 because of the coronavirus.
1954 ASHLAND (83) – Bailey 3-13, Kazee 2-7 0-0 7, Gray 8-18 0-1 19, Henderson 7-12 0-1 14, Kouns 7-12 2-3 16, Jones 4-12 5-6 13, Hopkins 2-6 0-0 4, Ware 1-3 1-2 3, Conley 1-2 0-0 2. FG: 35-85. FT: 9-14. 3FG: 4-11 (Kazee 1-3, Bailey 0-1, Gray 3-6, Hopkins 0-1). Rebounds: 58 (Kazee 4, Bailey 5, Gray 10, Henderson 15, Kouns 11, Jones 2, Hopkins 2, Ware 7, Conley 2). Assists: 18 (Jones 7, Kazee 1, Bailey 3, Gray 1, Hopkins 4, Conley 2). PF: 23. Turnovers: 17.
2020 ASHLAND (86) – Porter 5-9 0-0 10, Sellars 4-13 0-0 12, Bradley 5-9 6-6 17, Hudson 5-11 2-4 12, Villers 9-20 0-0 25, Phillips 2-5 0-1 4, Gillum 1-1 0-0 2, Adkins 1-2 0-0 2, Atkins 1-2 0-0 2, Davis 0-0 0-0 0. FG: 33-72. FT: 8-11. 3FG: 12-25 (Porter 0-2, Sellars 4-5, Bradley 1-4, Hudson 0-3, Villers 7-9, Phillips 0-2). Rebounds: 52 (Porter 3, Sellars 2, Bradley 12, Hudson 9, Villers 14, Phillips 5, Gillum 4, Adkins 1, Atkins 2, Davis 1). PF: 16. Turnovers: 18.
1954 ASHLAND 17 26 13 21 6 – 83
2020 ASHLAND 20 21 16 20 9 – 86